Fifteen years ago, weeks after my first son was born, my husband had a cardiac arrest in front of me. On a crisp winter afternoon, we set off to a local trail so he could run and I could stroll behind with our 8-week-old baby.
Around two miles in, my husband appeared through the trees ahead. When he saw me, he smiled and stopped running so we could all walk back to the car together. As he stopped, he brought his hands to his hips and swayed forward just enough to send a chill through me. I bridged the distance between us and he looked at me with wide-eyed fear and said, “Something’s wrong.” And it was.
What we didn’t know at the time but found out later is that when he stopped running, my husband’s heart lost its steady beats and began a deadly spiral into ventricular fibrillation — a rapid, life-threatening heart rhythm that can lead to death if the victim does not receive immediate treatment.
Witnessing someone you love experience a medical crisis is disorienting. My husband began to lose consciousness, and in my panic, I screamed, I cried, I handed my baby to a stranger. I fumbled to guide my husband’s rigid and unsteady body to a nearby bench before he collapsed — hoping to spare him head injuries. When he fell over onto the bench, it was nearly impossible to remain calm enough to take action. Should I check his pulse? Attempt to move his body to the ground? Perform CPR? But through my fear and shock, one thing remained undoubtedly clear: I needed to call 911.
Maybe this is why, while watching that scene in the pilot episode of “And Just Like That ... ”, I had to restrain my profanity-laden cries of disbelief from waking my sleeping children. I empathized with Carrie’s plight (in a way most can’t). I understood her tears, her fear, her desire to comfort her husband. But like many others, I could not fathom why she wouldn’t rush to dial 911.
And then, instead of checking vitals while her husband takes his last breath, she kisses him. I realize these are fictional characters, but as someone who’s been in Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes (insert Nikes for Manolos), her failure to do anything to save her dying husband was beyond maddening. It was absurd.
The episode ended with no mention of first responders — only a background glimpse of paramedics wheeling a body bag out of the apartment on a gurney. During the credit reel, I waited for a PSA to fill the screen and address the importance of 911 and CPR in a cardiac crisis, something to acknowledge there are more effective ways to handle a medical emergency. Alas, no such acknowledgment came.
On the day of my husband’s cardiac arrest, many things had to go right for him to survive. As soon as my call went through, 911 dispatched first responders to our location, which wasn’t easy because, like Carrie, I was frantic. But because I called 911, the first step in a coordinated “chain of survival” — the interdependent relationship between public bystanders, first responders and hospital providers required for a successful outcome to cardiac arrest — was set in motion.
Despite having spotty cell service on the trail, the 911 dispatcher remained on the line with me, attempting to guide me as my husband went into agonal breathing and lost his pulse. While the ambulance tried to reach us — a difficult task two miles into a trail with multiple trailheads — a crowd of bystanders gathered, and an off-duty firefighter-paramedic ran up and immediately began chest compressions as I administered rescue breaths.
I found out later it was almost 30 minutes from the time my husband collapsed to when the ambulance arrived. He received CPR for most of that time, which pumped blood and oxygen through his body, keeping him alive.
According to the American Heart Association, in the United States, only about 46% of people who experience a cardiac arrest outside the hospital (OHCA) receive CPR before first responders arrive. No other medical situation has such a vital reliance on the community. Less than 10% of people who experience an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest survive. Of those, almost all are at risk for brain damage.
In Norway, where CPR has been part of the national school curriculum since 1961, the average survival from OHCA is 25%. If Americans were trained in CPR at the rate of citizens in Norway, we’d likely see a 15% increase in survival. That’s 53,000 fathers, grandfathers, sons, mothers, husbands — lives saved from something as simple as knowing how to perform chest compressions.
Many people feel helpless to act during a cardiac emergency because they don’t know how to perform CPR. Or, like me on the trail, they may be CPR certified but unable to recall the ratio of breaths to compressions due to a flood of fear and adrenaline. To make it easier, the AHA now recommends Hands-Only CPR. No rescue breaths, no precise ratios, just push hard and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.
But first, call 911.
My husband was one of the lucky ones. A perfect stranger trained in CPR saved his life. Carrie Bradshaw didn’t need an off-duty firefighter to rush to Big’s rescue to make his death believable. Not all medical emergencies have a hero. I know my husband’s story is exceptional.
I know this because he was comatose when he arrived at the ER, and the doctors told me he showed signs of brain damage. I know our story is unique because, during my 10 days of living in the ICU waiting room with my new baby, my husband woke up and I listened to doctors and nurses use words like unbelievable and miraculous. I also know my husband is alive today, not only because I called 911, but because of CPR. Steve, the off-duty firefighter-paramedic from the trail, saved my husband’s life. Now a family friend, Steve tells me that when it comes to OHCA, it almost always goes the other way.
It was entirely possible to give Carrie and Big their romantic ending — replete with royal blue silk Hangisi stilettos — while also highlighting the importance of 911 and CPR. It might not seem romantic to watch someone panicking into a phone or giving compressions with their knees digging into shower tiles. Still, in matters of the heart, I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more true to life, to marriage, to love, to watch a person fight like hell to save her husband, even if, in the end, she couldn’t.